July 23, 2009

Jackrabbit Numbers Dwindle

According to federal wildlife officials, the white-sided jackrabbit is down to an estimated population of 150 in the United States, and should possibly be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The biggest threat to the rabbit is changes in its habitat.  Droughts, grazing, and the suppression of wildfires in the Chihuahuan grasslands of New Mexico, the animal's natural habitat, have led to the dwindling population.

Wildfires help revitalize grasslands, which the jackrabbit depends on.

According to Nicole Rosmarino, a biologist with the Western environmental group WildEarth Guardians, the jackrabbit population in Mexico has also declined.

Rosmarino believes the problems for the jackrabbit will likely continue as forecasters predict increasingly dryer conditions in the Southwest due to climate change.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to study the potential impact of climate change on the jackrabbit during a 12-month review period.

The agency will decide whether to include the rabbit under the Endangered Species Act after the review period.

In New Mexico, the animal has been listed as a state endangered species since 1975.

"The rabbit has cleared the first hurdle toward federal protection, so that's good news," Rosmarino said.

A petition was filed by environmentalist groups to force the review by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The white-sided jackrabbit gets its name from the conspicuous white area that runs along its body.  The rabbit mates for life, and produces several litters of one to three young a year.  It also features very large ears, and long limbs which help the rabbit stay cool in the desert.

WildEarth Guardians is also seeking protection for other species, including the Sonoran desert tortoise.  The group is also asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to look into why the tortoises' numbers have been cut in half in recent decades.

According to Rosmarino, the agency's decision to study the rabbit first, gives it a greater chance to avoid extinction.


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